Mary Lyon Hall at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. (Keith Nordstrom)

Dennis Hanno, the president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, got an unexpected immersion in what he calls America’s new culture of “free-floating rage” this week.

After a controversy over religious and academic freedom at another college with the same name in Illinois went viral, he found his own campus targeted by a barrage of angry messages and threats.

A tenured political science professor at the other Wheaton posted on Facebook that she would wear a hijab during Advent in support of Muslims. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Larycia Hawkins wrote on Facebook, “… we worship the same God.”

Her remarks outraged some, and the college’s move to fire her angered others.

[Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? College suspends a professor who said yes]

[Professor shocked at Wheaton’s move to fire her]

While the debate raged nationwide, employees at the college in Massachusetts found themselves unexpectedly in the line of fire. And the experience left Hanno worried about a larger problem in our society.

He argues that in a culture that stops children from bullying — yet often ignores hostile behavior by adults — the need to counter aggression and ensure fair and open and civil debate belongs to us all.

Reckless Incivility: The Talk that Ails Us

By Dennis M. Hanno   

Wheaton College President Dennis Hanno (Photo by Nicki Pardo) Wheaton College President Dennis Hanno (Photo by Nicki Pardo)

I serve as the president of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. My college shares a name with another college in Illinois. Although we are completely unaffiliated, and there is a rather significant cultural difference, people still confuse us from time to time.

My Wheaton is a secular liberal-arts college; the other Wheaton is an evangelical Christian school. Though both schools have been around for more than 100 years, we are very different institutions, separated by half a continent but connected by a name and occasionally by careless Googling.

Under most circumstances, the cases of mistaken identity that arise between the two Wheaton Colleges are of interest and concern only to us and to the people who confuse us. However, a current controversy involving the Illinois college has forced me and others here at the Wheaton in Massachusetts to confront a much bigger problem that threatens our nation’s democratic foundation.

The problem is reckless incivility. That’s the polite way to describe it, though politeness is not a characteristic of this growing culture of harassment and rage. My encounter with this toxic environment stems from the recent news coverage surrounding the decision by Wheaton in Illinois to begin termination proceedings against a tenured professor who shared her opinion that Christians and Muslims worship the same god. It’s a controversial situation that puts religious and academic freedom into conflict, not to mention raising questions about the extent of our rights regarding freedom of speech in the United States.

Reasonable people can hold different opinions on which rights should hold sway in such a situation. They can even express those disagreements, explaining their position and their values. This type of discourse has long been recognized as essential to negotiating the conflicts that naturally arise in a diverse, democratic society. Unfortunately, too many people who participate in these “discussions” are neither reasonable nor respectful of others.

This awful truth became clear to many of us on our campus within hours — perhaps even minutes — after the coverage of the controversy on the other similarly named college, located 1,000 miles away from our own, made the news. Calls, emails and angry threats poured in. The fact that they were misdirected (hateful incivility aimed at the wrong college) did little to reduce their sting.

What should we conclude from the person who expressed his desire that the professor — the one at the other college on whom the news story focused — be raped, sold into slavery and stoned to death?

Or the individual who called various offices on our Wheaton campus to tell several administrators that their personal contact information would be posted online with a call for others to bombard them with messages decrying the college’s actions?

And the dozens of hateful messages that we received at Wheaton College in Massachusetts is probably just a tiny fraction of those that the professor, the president of the Illinois college and his colleagues received.

Forget for a moment that the move to fire a faculty member for sharing a belief in the commonality among people of different faiths is not something that Wheaton in Massachusetts did, nor is it something that we would do. The confusion between “which Wheaton is which” is a problem for those of us who work at our two very different colleges to address. But the larger issue of extreme incivility is something we all own and is a growing problem in our nation that we all have some responsibility for addressing.

It is not only possible to express disagreement on a matter of principle without resorting to personal attacks and harassment, it should be expected.

Social media, the online comment culture, the popularity of anonymous venting and a growing host of interactive communication options can all be blamed. Although communication technology does make it easier for people to target — or in this case to misdirect — their rage in 2016, it is not the technology that is the problem.

The free-floating rage that is so prevalent on the Internet and social media is not limited to cyberspace. Consider the regular reports of road rage that lead to violence. Or the years-long deadlock of partisan bickering in Washington — not to mention what passes for conversation on talk radio. This behavior is calculated to silence dissent, to obliterate those with whom we hold an opposing opinion, and it merely drives people apart.

In our nation’s public K-through-12 schools, educators offer programs for students to combat the bullying that marginalizes those who are different in some way. Yet we continue to tolerate and sometimes cheer this type of behavior as adults. It’s time to demand better from each other.

It is up to each of us to revive and advance the once-respected notion that it is unacceptable for members of a civil society to rage with unbridled hostility against others, even if they are expressing viewpoints with which we strongly disagree.